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The “E” Word

February 27, 2014 Leave a comment

As an IT professional (actually I don’t like that term because it sounds too pompous and I prefer not to pursue a traditional formal approach to computer support) I am often dismayed at the news of the next example of a seemingly endless line of IT disasters. I have commented on these here in the past, especially the Novopay debacle which just seems to go on and on (I don’t believe for an instant that the system is working well yet).

The latest in this long line of misery is a 34 hour outage at our local hospital where their system crashed which stopped all patient records systems, phones, and almost every other automated system. This was shortly after a disaster at the Southern DHB where records were lost after a hardware failure and the failure of two backup and archive systems (really? how would any competent professional allow that to happen?)

The Dunedin Hospital outage meant that some patients were asked to go home to retrieve copies of their own paper records. Can anything get much more embarrassing than that?

A spokesman for the District Health Board said there would be no cost to them; that admissions, including emergencies, were delayed but no one suffered as a result; and that a doctor “wouldn’t necessarily” have taken longer to see a patient.

That phrase “wouldn’t necessarily” is revealing. Reading between the lines I would say there were definitely delays, and everything seems to take forever to happen at hospitals anyway so even greater delays than usual would be very frustrating.

The system was described as a “quite new system”, run by IBM, and was considered fail-safe. So I might wonder if this yet another example of a major company which has made a mess of things. But to be fair I shouldn’t judge them too harshly, because if this failure is a single event I think that’s OK – new systems do need some time to overcome initial issues – but I will be interested to see if there are any further major problems.

Of course it was no surprise when the issue became political. The opposition claimed the problem was a result of the government’s cost cutting of health, and that DHBs were in “survival mode”. The prime minister countered this by saying that hospitals have been funded more each year (but he did admit this was not as much as under the previous government) and that before National took over DHBs were $200 million in debt but are now back to surplus as a result of greater efficiency. He also said that we shouldn’t read too much into this and that systems will break down from time to time.

I think he has a point: systems do occasionally fail (even my own) and I won’t judge IBM until I see if these problems are repeated. But the opposition also has a point. When we hear the dreaded “E” word (efficiency) we know there is something bad happening behind the scenes. When “efficiency” is used by people like the PM it really means cost-cutting, downsizing, and reductions in quality of services. Really that’s the only way these “efficiencies” are achieved.

So hospitals are funded more each year which is what we would expect for them just to stay where they are because, after all, the population increases each year and there is also inflation to overcome. So what? Increases mean nothing. Then there is the reduction in debt. Well again so what? Reducing debt by $200 million effectively means that much has gone from the health system. Neither of these are anything to be proud of, I would have thought, and to suggest that cost cutting doesn’t affect the quality of health and related services, like IT, is a bit disingenuous.

Just today there was a sign of what is really happening when Dunedin nurses met over having to work double shifts and not being able to take lunch breaks because of staff cuts after funding shortages caused by the PM’s “efficiency”.

I don’t think efficiency in this sense is a good thing at all. We need a new way to measure the quality of outcomes in organisations like hospitals. We must banish the old E word and replace it with a new one: effectiveness. Yeah, I know, that is just as likely to be misused as the current one, but at least it’s a new start!

Who Needs a Computer?

February 24, 2014 Leave a comment

Recently my previously trusty MacBook Pro laptop has been giving me a few issues. Actually, those more observant readers of this blog will know the same machine also gave me “a few issues” about a year ago in March 2013 when a faulty hard drive cable caused corruption of the system disk, but apart from that it has worked reliably for 4 years (and I still think Apple makes the most reliable hardware). Also remember that this machine has been given a good test because I use it a lot every day and take it everywhere with me.

Anyway, this time I have a really annoying and baffling problem. The machine randomly wakes up and overheats when it is sitting in my bag. Plus the overheating seems to have lead to random errors on the SSD and possibly some bad memory too. It’s a bit of a concern because I know of a PC laptop which do something similar and totally destroyed itself.

The machine still works OK most of the time but I am avoiding using it until a replacement turns up – a build-to-order MacBook Pro 15 inch with retina screen which will take a few weeks (because it’s a custom build). So that means I am doing as much as possible on my iPad instead (as much as an experiment as it is an attempt to use the laptop less).

So how’s it going? Well, some things are going really well and others not so good. The iPad is great for many things, such as web browsing, reading and writing emails, watching movies, posting on Facebook and Twitter, making short notes, storing and viewing photos, and casual gaming. But I can’t use it for programming, designing databases, or even creating web sites. Theoretically, I might be able to do some of those things but it wouldn’t be easy.

But you might note that the things that I mentioned working well on the iPad are the things that most people use a computer for, and the other stuff is more specialised and geeky. So I think an iPad would be a good choice for many people instead of a computer. Maybe that’s why computer sales are slumping while tablet (especially iPad) sales are booming, and why Apple out-sold every other PC manufacturer combined if you count the iPad as a computer (not a totally fair comparison I agree, but an interesting one).

Since I got the iPad Air I have found myself using it a lot, even before the laptop developed its fault. Why? because it’s so light and thin but the screen is still a usable size. The battery life is very good. The high resolution screen is gorgeous. The speed is impressive and well balanced between processing, graphics, storage, and networking. It’s a fantastic product where I think Apple has created just about the best possible balance between weight and ruggedness, speed and battery life, and functionality and simplicity. Yeah, I know, it is kind of expensive, but just use one for a while and most people agree it is worth it.

I think the trend of using more tablets will continue and it might get to the point quite quickly when only IT experts, engineers, and some other professionals still use conventional computers. And while a tablet has the same sorts of functions as a computer it does them differently, so I don’t think the Microsoft approach of merging the laptop and tablet gives the best result, although I can see some merit in the idea.

The thing is it has really got to the point now where I can’t decide which of my toys I love the most: my MacBook Pro, my iPad, or my iPhone. They are all beautiful (yes, I still love my Mac laptop even when it is misbehaving) and they all work perfectly in their own areas. All I need now is an iWatch to complete the set!

All My Macs

February 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Recently we in the “Apple World” celebrated the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the Mac in January 1984. And yes, as a computer veteran I was there, well not actually there, but I was working as a programmer for an Apple dealer at the time and I did get one of the earliest Macs ever made. And, of course, before that I programmed the Apple II and Apple II. Ah yes, those were the days when programmers were real programmers!

I have listened to some podcasts of people reminiscing about their early Mac experiences so I thought why not add my own, both of my earliest use of Macs and of further experiences since then, so here goes…

Just before the Mac was released I was heavily into the Apple II and especially the Apple III. Yes, the dealer I worked for was one of the few who sold a lot of Apple IIIs and despite their reputation they were actually a really good machine in many ways. But the Mac was something different. It really was a revolution.

Because the first Macs were all American models they needed a step-down transformer to operate on our 230 Volt power instead of the American 110 Volt (this was before the universal power supplies we have now). The other Apple dealer in town also had a Mac but – you guessed it – they forgot to use the transformer and fried theirs!

So I had this little Mac with 128K of RAM and a single 400K floppy disk drive. Compared with what we can do now the whole experience was pretty awful but compared to what we had before that it was fantastic! Managing floppy disk space was tricky because that 400K (a million times less than a small hard drive or an SSD today) was needed for the whole operating system, application program(s), and data, but it could be done.

But MacPaint was such an advance on any other painting program I had ever used before (even though it was only black and white) and MacWrite – with it’s abilities to display different font sizes and styles and to embed graphics – was so far ahead of other word processors, that the inconveniences of the early Mac were barely noticed. Of course, the Apple II only had a 143K disk and the same applied to the Apple III, unless you could afford the massive 5 Meg Profile hard disk!

After that first Mac I progressed to newer models as they became available: the Mac 512 worked much better because of its extra RAM but the Mac Plus was the first really useful model because its SCSI port allowed easy connection of hard disks of 10, 20, or even 40 Meg capacity!

After that I continued to move up the scale to a Mac SE, LC, LC III, and finally to one of my favourite Macs (considering the time it was released) the Centris 610. I had that machine at home and it was powered by the might 68040 CPU running at the impressive speed of 20 MegaHertz! I did a lot of programming, newsletter production, and game playing on that Mac and I still have it. Not sure if it still runs. Must try that some time!

I had a much more powerful machine at work shortly later when the PowerPC-based machines were released. It was a Power Mac 8100/80AV and it had a PowerPC 601 processor running at 80 MegaHertz. It also had some cool audio and video I/O features (as indicated by the AV designation). That was probably the most expensive Mac I ever had because, at the time, they cost about $NZ13,000!

After that I used various models at home and work: Power Mac 7200, 7300, and then the 8600 with the PowerPC 604e processor. Then the G3 CPU was released and this chip was the first one to really realise the performance of the PowerPC RISC architecture. It was also used in the iMac when it was released a bit later.

After that there was further steady progress with various G4 machines with speeds from 350 MHz up to dual 1.25 processors. I still use one G4-based machine as a server.

By about 2003 I had switched from having one Mac desktop at home and one at work (with all the issues involved in keeping them both up to date and synchronised) to having one laptop for everything. It was a PowerBook G4 17″ with a 1 GigaHertz processor and a 60 GB hard drive. I must have got the first 17 inch laptop in town and I remember everyone admiring the screen. It wasn’t light to carry around though!

When the 64 bit G5 came out we all admired its power (I still use several G5 Power Macs as servers) but there was a problem: the G5 chip ran hot. IBM was losing interest in the architecture, and Apple wanted to move more to laptops (where efficient processors were necessary), so although there were various laptops based on the 68000 and PowerPC 603, G3, and G4 chips (many of which I owned and used) there was never one using the G5. Apple had to do something, and much to the dismay of many supporters, they switched to the same Intel architecture as the PC in 2006.

So after a second, faster, G4 17″ laptop I switched to a MacBook Pro with a Core 2 Duo 2.33 GHz Intel CPU and a 160G hard disk. But I soon realised that a screen that size was just too big, so my current machine has a 15 inch screen. I hope to replace it soon and that will probably be for another 15″ laptop with a high resolution screen.

You can see I’ve used a significant proportion of the total range of models over the years, and at home me and my family currently have the following: a 15 inch MacBook Pro, a 13″ retina screen MacBook Pro, a 13″ standard MacBook Pro, a 13″ MacBook, an old 17″ MacBook Pro, a Mac Mini Solo, a Mac Pro quad-core Xeon used as a media server, three Mac G5s used as file and web servers, a Mac Mini G4 used to display photos, plus a pile of old machines such as a G3 iMac, G4, and 7200 used to run old stuff occasionally. Oh, and there are four iPhones, 2 iPads, several iPods, and an AppleTV. Now you know why Apple makes so much money!

Creation’s Cretins

February 16, 2014 Leave a comment

Some ideas are so ridiculous that they deserve no serious consideration at all. That’s one of the reasons that many people refuse to debate with creationists. But recently Bill Nye “the Science Guy” rather foolishly agreed to debate Ken Ham, a prominent creationist, and this has stirred up a lot of discussion in various forums.

It should be an easy victory, right? Because Nye has all the facts on his side, and Ham has nothing. But no, it wasn’t really that simple. Like most of these debates, there was no obvious victor because Nye was debating the facts and Ham was countering with creationist lies and propaganda.

Anyway that’s enough of the preamble. What I want to do in this blog entry is show how anyone can prove to themselves, beyond reasonable doubt, that creationism isn’t true. By “creationism” I mean the belief that the world is about 6000 years old; that the universe, Earth, and life were created as described in Genesis; and that the Flood was a real event. There are other forms of creationism (old Earth, for example) and there are other beliefs included in that view, but I’ll stick to these most important ones.

Creationists say the Universe is just (roughly) 6000 years old because that’s what the Bible seems to show, without explicitly stating it. OK, so is that true? Science says the Universe is about 13.8 billion years old, the Earth about 4.5 billion, and life and 3.6 billion. That’s a big difference, a factor of 2 million times greater (like saying I’m 10 minutes old instead of 50 years). Surely it should be easy to find which of those ages is correct. Well yes, it is.

What evidence do creationists have? The Bible. That’s it. And even then it is just one particular interpretation of the Bible because most Christians accept the Universe is much older. Apart from that creationists occasionally quote errors or inaccuracies in scientific dating techniques, some of which are real but have no effect on the overall findings.

What evidence does science have? Well there are so many independent sources that I can’t possibly list them all. An old Universe (and Earth) is required by the discoveries of astronomy, cosmology, chemistry, geology, physics, evolution, and virtually any other science you can think of.

The important thing is that all of these outcomes are independent. An error in one would not lead to the same error in another because they rely on completely different assumptions and methodologies. Yet the results match to a high degree of precision. So what’s more likely: that every branch of science has got the basics wrong and got them wrong in exactly the right way to give the same wrong results as each other, or that something written in an old book is wrong?

But that’s all just philosophical musings. Now I want to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the Universe is billions of years old. If you don’t trust science you can buy an amateur telescope and do all this yourself (it also requires a bit of maths), so you don’t even need to rely on those sneaky scientists with their an atheistic worldview and global conspiracy against God!

First, figure out the dimensions of the Solar System. This can be done by estimating the size of the Earth (something done by Eratosthenes about 2200 years ago) and then doing some timing at a transit of Venus or Mercury (unfortunately you just missed those but the calculation was done by Lalande in 1771). If you do that you can figure out the speed of light using timings of Jupiter’s satellites (originally done in 1676, by Danish astronomer, Romer).

Now figure out the distance to some close stars. This is difficult but was first done (by Friedrich Bessel in 1838) using relatively basic telescopes with the trigonometric parallax technique (which uses the size of the Solar System you calculated above). Now you can create some rules for estimating the real brightness of different stars by using closer stars (parallax is only practical for close stars) and using the apparent brightness and the distance.

Now observe some examples of particular stars, called Cepheid variables, which change brightness based on their mass (calibrate your measurements using the estimates above). You will find these bright stars can be used to calculate distances, even to other galaxies. You will find that some stars are visible at distances of millions of trillions of kilometers.

Now remember you calculated the speed of light earlier? Use that to calculate how long the light from those stars has been travelling through space. You will find it easy to prove that light has been travelling for tens of thousand, hundreds of thousands, or millions of years, even based on relatively “close” stars. But that’s far longer than the universe has existed according to creationists.

There are three possible excuses creationists might use here…

First, the speed of light was faster in the past. Unfortunately you will need to study some physics to understand why this can’t be the case to any significant extent because the speed of light is so fundamental to the universe it would be very obvious if it used to be faster by so many orders of magnitude.

The second possibility is that the stars were created a few thousand years ago (as creationist think) but the light they produce was created already travelling. Even the majority of creationists reject this possibility because God isn’t supposed to be deceptive. There would also be interesting effects on gravitational lenses and light echoes, which we don’t see.

The final possibility is that there is some special and poorly understood aspect of relativity or maybe quantum theory which causes some sort of unusual non-linear effect making the stars seem older. This approach has been attempted in the past but it just doesn’t work and no one takes that possibility seriously.

Of course, (going back to explanation 2) God could have made thousands of different phenomena just 100% right to deceive us into thinking that the universe is old when it isn’t, but if that’s the way he works how can we believe anything, including what creationists think he wrote in the Bible?

So really young Earth creationism is very easy to disprove. The method I described above is just one of many I could have used. If people want to believe in the myth of Christianity that is fine but they shouldn’t mention in public discussions that they are creationists because that really just makes them look like one of creation’s cretins!

TPPPPPPPPPPPP

February 15, 2014 Leave a comment

The problems inherent in the TPP just won’t go away. It seems to me that the Trans-Pacific Partnership woud be named the Trans-Pacific Partnership for Perpetual Profit of Petty Pernicious Profiteers Pledged to a Pogrom of Poisoning Powerless People (hey, I could go on with these Ps all day – I have a thesaurus!)

I’m distrustful of trade deals in general, especially when the senior partner is a country with as much power as the US and as strong a history of making and enforcing laws which seem to be primarily for the benefit of the rich and powerful.

We are told by our negotiators that this will be a great deal and that everyone will be happy with the final outcome which will be “great for our economy”. But their confidence in the deal isn’t sufficient to make the negotiations public, nor to even make the outcome open to debate before it becomes enforceable.

Clearly there is a lot in this deal which many people won’t agree with and I can’t imagine any circumstances where the US would negotiate a treaty which didn’t greatly benefit big American corporations at the expense of smaller partners (like us). If the US negotiators didn’t get an outcome of that type they would be incompetent, and I’m sure that is unlikely.

And the old canard that free trade is good for everyone is so demonstrably wrong that I barely need to even mention it. For a start, there never is real free trade because countries always put barriers in the way. It’s only those most dedicated to it (like New Zealand) who end up suffering. But even if it was free, all that does is start that race to the bottom again where low prices (and low wages and poor working conditions) inevitably win.

The latest controversy is over the proposal to require tobacco products to be sold in plain packaging. The idea is that this will remove some of the attraction of smoking because the product will be less visually appealing. There is a lot of debate over how effective this could be (I’m skeptical) but that’s not really even the point.

The point is that if we did introduce this law there is a good chance the tobacco companies could sue our government for loss of profits, thanks to the TPP. So a tobacco company – an industry responsible for the greatest program of mass-murder in history (5 million per year according to the CDC) can sue our government who want to try to improve health and prevent unnecessary deaths from the effects of smoking.

Is this really the type of agreement we want to be involved with? And I’m sure that is just one small part of this dirty deal. We will also lose whatever rights to privacy we might still have (if any thanks to American spying) and we will lose the ability to control our own economy for the benefit of the majority.

How do I know? Well I don’t for sure because, apart from leaks, the whole thing is being kept secret. All we can hope is that the whole sorry deal will collapse of at least continue to be delayed. Why would anyone want a deal giving the most evil organisations on the planet more power? The whole idea is just Totally Punishing to the People, or Terribly Preferential to the Powerful, or is it Treasonous Pandering to the Perverse. Yeah, that’s the real TPP… no thanks!

Came Here for an Argument

February 10, 2014 2 comments

You know I don’t mind if a bunch of mindless fools like the Jehovah’s Witnesses want to walk around town making a nuisance of themselves by trying to inflict their childish beliefs on the rest of us, I really don’t (well actually, let’s be honest here, I do, because I just don’t like knowing that there are so many people who believe total nonsense). But I do mind when their failure to accept reality extends to idiotic rejections of the benefits of science and technology as well.

Yes, there have been a pair of JWs (what is the collective noun for JWs, like “a murder of crows”. I think it should be an “annoyance of witnesses”) cruising the neighbourhood recently trying to catch up with me for a discussion on some aspect of their theology (I believe it was primarily why God allows bad things to happen, and I mentioned it previously in a blog entry “A Different Fantasy” from 2014-01-11).

They finally found me at home and we had a brief chat on the subject which basically ended up with them saying that unless I believed what the Bible said there was not much point in continuing the discussion. I always thought they wanted to convert non-believers, so the whole exercise seemed rather pointless since their entire argument depended on the person already believing that the Bible held infallible truths.

But anyway, the subject of advanced scientific research arose…

One of the JWs said something like “What about that big round thing in Europe which is trying to prove the Big Bang is true. What a waste of money that is!” Of course I gave a quiet sigh of resignation at having to debate with such an idiot, but I also felt a bit upset that such a grand achievement could be dismissed so easily.

So I said “I’m guessing you mean the Large Hadron Collider which is on the border of Switzerland and France and was recently used to confirm the existence of the Higgs Boson”. Well, she said, that might have been it, but it was used to prove the Big Bang is true and since we all know it isn’t, it was obviously a waste of money.

Now I believe that people are entitled to their opinion (actually, no, again I must correct myself because some people are too stupid and ignorant to have an opinion) but they should at least do a small amount of work to confirm a few basic facts about anything they might be criticising.

Those few basic facts might include knowing what the thing is called, I mean referring to the greatest achievement of modern civilisation as “that big round thing” is somehow demeaning to the LHC itself, but even more so to the person making the comment!

And another might be why it exists. I would have thought that the discovery of the Higgs was quite well known and that any research around conditions shortly after the Big Bang was barely mentioned. And even if you do choose to emphasise that it really wasn’t about “proving” anything, it was more about studying the conditions in the early ultra-dense, high energy universe.

So I asked the JW if she had a car or a computer or used the internet, all of which she said yes to – she even had an iPad as well! So it seemed she was happy enough to make use of the fruits of the same science and technology that she felt so free to criticise! But religious people, as well as being ignorant and unthinking are also often very hypocritical, so there should be no surprises there.

After I said that they really don’t have the right to criticise something they know so little about the JWs decided to leave, claiming that they hadn’t come here for an argument. I was very tempted at this point to do the old Monty Python Argument Clinic routine (I didn’t come here for an argument, yes you did, no I didn’t, you’re arguing right now, no I’m not, etc…) but they probably wouldn’t have understood that either so what would be the point?

Self Serving

February 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Yet again the issue of inequality is being debated here in New Zealand (and in most other parts of the world). The latest foray into this rather difficult subject has been made by a prominent New Zealand business and technology leader, Ian Taylor, who is founder and CEO of Animation Research here in Dunedin.

The Labour opposition and National government are arguing over whether inequality is getting greater or less. I thought it was considered a settled question because everything I have seen shows the situation is getting much worse and that’s exactly what you would expect in an environment like the one we currently have. The National Party does have a reputation for using “creative statistics” though, so maybe they can make a case contrary to the facts like they do in so many other situations.

So back to what Taylor is saying. He claims that excessive salaries are “self serving and often cannot be defended”, and that he cannot understand how a country can survive when some are paid so much and others so little. He also says that there is no need for performance bonuses because a person’s salary is paid for performance anyway, and those who say “if you pay peanuts you get monkeys” have redefined what a peanut is. It is a self-perpetuating circle where public leaders insist on matching salaries with the private sector who in turn demand increases.

Apparently he practices what he preaches as well. As CEO he only makes three times more than the lowest paid employee in his company, and his salary is the same as it was 10 years ago. Plus he will accept no raise until the lowest paid in his company gets what they are worth. On the other hand, I’m not sure what he makes through shares, dividends, etc, so there could be more to this than what we see on the surface!

There doesn’t seem to be much there to argue with, but Business New Zealand naturally does so anyway. They say the problem is exaggerated and has become almost a slogan of little value. According to them, in New Zealand the average CEO makes “just” 26 times the average employee, but in Australia the ratio is 100 times, in the UK 160 times, and in the US 350 times. They also say we need effective CEOs so that they can hire the people that need the work.

Right, so on to the commentary on these opinions and stats…

First, let’s admit there is a problem and it is getting worse no matter what the government says. It’s not just here in New Zealand of course – it probably is worse in many other countries – but that doesn’t make it OK. Most people (apart from Business New Zealand and a few other extreme right wingers and libertarians) think we should aim for a more equal society, so let’s do something about it.

Second, it is possible to have a successful company without paying the CEO a hugely inflated salary. Ian Taylor’s company, Animation Research, should be an example. Compare that with Fonterra which lurches from one disaster to another and really only does well because China wants our milk despite the complete mismanagement of the industry; or Telecom who offer mediocre, insecure services and only succeed because of the way they manipulated their monopoly position. Do the CEOs of these (and other big corporations) deserve the pay they get? Do they deserve anything?

Is it likely that a person who runs a company simply because he is given a lot of money will be good at it? Would it not be better to get rid of that sort of person and hire someone who genuinely cares about the industry the company operates in and is prepared to settle for less pay? I couldn’t find any real stats on this idea but common sense seems to indicate it has some merit. After all, by appealing to self-serving greed do we get the best type of person or the worst? Looking at the history of the appalling, incompetent, immoral individuals who have run big companies here I think the answer is clear.

Third, does a successful CEO create more jobs or less? And does he create better economic outcomes for our country or worse? I think the answer to these questions is far from clear. How often does a CEO get a bonus for reducing the workforce or outsourcing services to India? Again I have no proof, but that seems to happen far more than the opposite.

There are various mechanisms which can be used to help correct this problem. Some countries (odd that their stats weren’t mentioned by Business NZ) have a maximum ratio between the workers’ and the CEO’s pay. Some have a limit on maximum salary. Some have a highly progressive tax system. All of these solutions have problems of their own, but they shouldn’t be rejected because of that. Something needs to be done because as Taylor says: a society cannot survive with such blatant unfairness at it’s very core.